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‘50,000 IS members in Syria’ Report warns of anti-aircraft weapons

BEIRUT, Aug 19, (Agencies): The jihadist Islamic State has more that 50,000 fighters in Syria and recruited 6,000 last month alone, the Britainbased Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. The group, which relies on activists, doctors and lawyers on the ground in Syria for its reporting, said July saw the Islamic State’s largest recruitment yet. “The number of IS fighters has passed 50,000 in Syria, including 20,000 non-Syrians,” the group’s director Rami Abdel Rahman said. “July saw the largest recruitment since the group appeared in Syria in 2013, with more than 6,000 new fighters,” he said. There was no way to independently confirm the figures. Abdel Rahman said the new recruits in July included more than 1,000 foreign fighters from Chechnya, Europe and Arab countries, as well as Chinese Muslims. He said most had entered Syria from Turkey. Other recruits included defectors from the ranks of other armed opposition groups, including 200 from the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Al-Nusra Front. The Islamic State grew out of Al- Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, but has since parted ways with the group.

Opposition It initially cooperated with some of the armed opposition in Syria, but its abuses against rival rebels and civilians sparked a backlash that began this January. Meanwhile, the Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility for detaining a Japanese man in Syria in a post on the Internet, Kyodo news agency reported on Tuesday.

The Japanese foreign ministry said on Monday Japan was investigating whether one of its citizens had been captured in northern Syria by Islamic State fighters. Ministry officials could not be reached for comment immediately. A video clip posted on YouTube this week showed a man wearing a T-shirt lying on the ground being questioned by unidentified people. The man responded by saying his name was Haruna Yukawa and that he was both a journalist and a doctor. The name is the same as that of a chief executive of a self-described private mercenary and security firm.

More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, which pits overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite minority backed by Shi’ite militias from Iraq and Lebanon. In other news, Armed groups in Syria have an estimated several hundred portable anti-aircraft missiles that could easily be diverted to extremists and used to destroy low-flying commercial planes, according to a new report by a respected international research group. It cites the risk that the missiles could be smuggled out of Syria by terrorists.

The report was released just hours after the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice Monday to US airlines banning all flights in Syrian airspace. The agency said armed extremists in Syria are “known to be equipped with a variety of anti-aircraft weapons which have the capability to threaten civilian aircraft.” The agency had previously warned against flights over Syria, but had not prohibited them. Small Arms Survey, a Switzerlandbased research organization that analyzes the global flow of weapons, published its findings Tuesday following last month’s lethal missile attack on a passenger jet flying over Ukraine. The report focuses on launchers and missiles known as “manportable air defense systems,” or MANPADS, which are dangerous to planes flying at lower altitudes or ones taking off or landing.

The new report estimated that several hundred anti-aircraft missile systems are already in rebel arsenals. Mostly Russian and Chinese in origin, the weapons have been seized by Syrian opposition militias from government forces and smuggled in from nations sympathetic to the insurgents, the report said.

The most immediate danger is that antiaircraft weapons, especially newer and sophisticated models, could easily be diverted to extremist groups operating outside Syria, it said. Porous borders and the presence in Iraq and other neighboring countries of groups affiliated with al- Qaeda and other extremists heighten the danger that anti-aircraft weapons could spread to other trouble spots. “In the hands of trained terrorists with global reach, even a few missiles pose a potentially catastrophic threat to commercial aviation,” wrote Matthew Schroeder, the report’s author.

The analysis is based on government and media reports and video footage of anti-aircraft weapons posted online from inside Syria. The extremist Islamic State group that has overrun much of northern and western Iraq also operates inside Syria. The militants, who have drawn fire from US drones and fighter jets, recently posted an online propaganda video showing one fighter appearing to fire an oldermodel, Russian-made SA-7 missile system. Most American and other commercial airlines already have halted flights over and into Syria during the past three years of conflict between the Assad government and insurgents.

Citing the threat of MANPADS strikes, the FAA warned American carriers in May 2013 to avoid Syrian airspace, a move that was heightened Monday to a total ban. “Opposition groups have successfully shot down Syrian military aircraft using these anti-aircraft weapon systems during the course of the conflict,” the FAA said in its “notice to airmen.” The agency added that the presence of anti-aircraft weapons creates a “continuing significant potential threat to civil aviation operating in Syrian airspace.”

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